Explore the history of the stylus and the many benefits of using one to get down to the nitty-gritty of design.
At the launch of the iPhone in 2007, Steve Jobs, in a fairly common flourish of dramatics, announced: “Who wants a stylus? You have to get ’em, put ’em away, you lose ’em. Yuck! Nobody wants a stylus. So, let’s not use a stylus.”
Eight years later, Apple revealed the Apple Pencil as the shiny new toy that we should all be using. And, just like that, they were in. Since then, creative people of all types are sporting an array of digital pens to bring new life and innovation to their work.
But, what is a stylus? What can you use them for? And why can’t we just be happy with what we have already? Well, I’m glad you asked.
Styluses, or styli (if you’re feeling fancy), are ancient in the truest form of the word. Dating all the way back to the Mesopotamians, they were originally made from reeds for writing. The Ancient Egyptians had a thing for them, too, making them out of bone. Then, when the Romans came along, they started using styluses for everything from writing notes on clay slates to inscribing patterns on the side of pots. In more modern times, however, they’re imbued with a whole load of tech. You will find them in the hands of artists, designers, and illustrators as a tool to interact with touchscreen devices, often used as an alternative to the more traditional keyboard and mouse setup.
Why Use a Stylus?
All hail the mighty stylus. Image via SU HSUN.
So, why do some favor this input method instead? Here’s some top benefits of using a stylus.
1. Natural Drawing Motion
First off, they offer a more fluid motion than a keyboard or mouse. This can lead to artwork that feels more genuine in composition, as artists can produce more natural lines and shaping.
A stylus aids in the finer details. Image via TippaPatt.
With a stylus, you can manipulate a design pixel-by-pixel. So, if you’re working on the finer details, a stylus could really make a difference when getting down to the nitty-gritty of a design.
3. Pressure Sensitivity
Modern touchscreens can sense the pressure that the user is applying to the screen, and they use that data to translate how a stroke or mark should look. When using a stylus, which mimics the features of a traditional drawing tool, simply pressing down on the screen can affect the width or depth of a stroke in much the same way that a paintbrush or pen would work in the physical world. If you have a pencil tool selected, then holding the stylus upright, like a pencil, will create narrow strokes. However, tilting it on its side will mimic the act of shading, creating wider, more expressive strokes on the screen.
4. Greater Connection to the Art
You have a more hands-on connection to your design with a stylus. Image via RossHelen.
This one sounds a bit out there, but being able to directly manipulate your work on screen, rather than being one step removed—as is the case when using a keyboard or mouse—really can make a difference in the quality of work you produce. This is much more in keeping with how artists have created analog artwork for centuries, and can give a greater sense of realism or style to a design as a result.
The problem with traditional input methods is that they’re usually connected to a device that needs to sit on a desk. Styluses can be used with tablets and phones, meaning your creative process can go with you. And, if you’re worried that the functionality of software on portable devices isn’t up to par with their desktop counterparts, fear not! Many companies—Affinity and Procreate being standouts in this field—are making desktop-class software specifically for use on tablets and with styluses.
6. Workflow Efficiencies
Many styluses are more than just a drawing device. Models such as the Apple Pencil come with neat touch technology that allows you to tap the side of the pen, and the tool can swap from, say, a brush to an eraser, all without having to poke around in menus.
7. Health Benefits
Pressure sensitivity allows you to create realistic shapes, textures, and depth in your artwork. Image via eyepark.
Repetitive strain injury is a real thing that all computer users can be affected by. Swapping out the keyboard for a stylus is the perfect way to reduce the constant tension in your arms, wrists, and fingers, and provide a much healthier relationship with your technology.
Choose What’s Right for You
But, hang on. Before you go ahead and resign your keyboard and mouse to the junk drawer, though styluses do have many benefits, it really does come down to the type of designs you’re creating.
If you create predominantly raster-based artwork, then a stylus will have fairly substantial advantages. Given the natural way in which you work, the stylus can replicate the form, feeling, and texture of traditional materials easily and effectively. That said, if vector work is predominantly your focus, then those advantages are likely to be slimmer. It may even hinder your output over using a keyboard and mouse.
Lettering Designs" class="wp-image-162603" />Lettering is a perfect use case for stylus-based designs. Image via CyrillicLettering.
Likewise, if you create super-complicated pieces, or need to interact with the UI of your program a lot, then trying to maneuver through all that detail or quickly traversing through windows and panels can become cumbersome if you no longer have access to keyboard shortcuts. It’s still true a stylus will allow you more control in terms of manipulating your artwork, but it comes at a cost.
Finally, as with all technology, a lot of the kits—styluses included—can be proprietary, meaning you’ll be beholden to buying more kits from the same company in order to make it work. For example, the Apple Pencil can only be used with Apple iPads, and even then, only the most recent models. Other providers, such as Wacom, are generally device-agnostic. However, they can come with a hefty price tag and are generally a little clunkier to set up and install.
As with any design tools, choose the ones that work best for you. Image via Anna Kraynova.
As with any decision about the tools you use, it really comes down to the way you work versus the way you’d want to work. If you think there’s a place in your workflow for stylus design, then it’s worth exploring. Some designers have even gone so far as to move entirely to tablet and stylus as their sole or primary method for creating artwork, with results that were simply unthinkable a decade ago. And, at the very least, getting comfortable with a stylus provides yet another string to your bow in terms of your creative output.
For more design tools tips and advice, check out these articles:
The Most Anticipated Graphic Design Styles for 2021The Promise of Mobile Design: What Apps Can and Can’t Do (For Now)A Complete Guide to the Procreate AppDesign Through the Decades: From the 1900s to the 1950sDesign Through the Decades: From the 1960s to Today
Cover image via Jopun.
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